Last year, the Stanford Undergraduate Admissions Office changed its high school math curriculum recommendations for prospective applicants, emphasizing conceptual math courses such as algebra and geometry while de-emphasizing applied alternatives like data science and statistics.
In April 2022, the admissions office website’s “Academic Preparation” page recommended a high school math curriculum that involves four years of study incorporating “fundamental skills” like algebra, geometry and trigonometry. The page included a line that read: “We welcome preparation in skills related to statistics, data science and calculus.”
By June of that year, the line had been updated to read: “We also welcome additional mathematical preparation, including calculus and statistics.”
The new wording removes data science from the list of explicitly-recommended areas of study and implies that certain math courses, like statistics, constitute “additional mathematical preparation” separate from the “fundamental skills.”
Stanford University spokesperson Dee Mostofi wrote in an email to The Daily that the update to Stanford’s math recommendations “is not meant to deter students from taking data science, or any other elective, in high school.” Mostofi wrote that the new recommendation “reflects the input of faculty along with discussion and approval by Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid (C-UAFA).”
Stanford is not alone in rewriting its math recommendations for prospective undergraduate applicants. Harvard’s admissions office made similar changes to its recommendations in Jan. 2023, removing a statement that “data science, computer science, statistics, mathematical modeling, calculus, and other advanced math classes are given equal consideration in the application process.” The latest version of Harvard’s math recommendations no longer includes data science.
Mathematics professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Brian Conrad was one of the faculty members involved in conversations surrounding the changes to the recommendation. Conrad said that data science and statistics were only recently added to university websites and that the additions on the Stanford and Harvard websites “were being represented as if this was a new prioritization in the admissions process.” This motivated the later changes in wording, which he said were meant to “try to put an end to this.”
As universities increasingly reject applied math courses as substitutes for the conventional curriculum, some media outlets and educational professionals are raising concerns about what these subtle changes mean for college admissions.
In a tweet responding to Stanford’s new recommendations, Jelani Nelson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that parents and school districts “should be wary of some alternative math pathways, e.g. data science, which harm students’ chances at college admissions.” Nelson added that he expects to see “more such changes in the future.”
Others say that the changes have been misinterpreted to be an institutional judgment on courses in data science and other applied math fields. During an episode of KQED’s Forum about the new California math framework, Jo Boaler, Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Mathematics Education at the Graduate School of Education, interpreted Stanford’s recommendation changes as an invitation for students to explore alternative math pathways.
“Stanford has changed its admissions statement to recognize that kids can go on a data science pathway,” Boaler said. “For many people, it does not make sense for colleges to select based on whether you have taken calculus or not, when calculus is not going to be a useful course for people going forward.”
The changes to Harvard’s website were met with similarly varied public reactions and press coverage.
Boaler wrote on Twitter in May 2022 that Harvard seeks conceptual understanding and “Data science, CS, Stats, & Calculus [are] all regarded as equal.”
However, Harvard’s co-director of undergraduate studies for computer science Boaz Barak responded to Boaler in a tweet, calling her remarks “highly misleading.” Barak wrote, “These courses are not all equal, *especially* if you intend to concentrate in quantitative fields including data science.”
According to Conrad, the growing popularity of data science and applied mathematics in high schools is a significant factor prompting colleges and universities to reevaluate high school math recommendations and requirements. For example, in Aug. 2021, the University of California broadened the list of acceptable math courses that fulfill the math requirement for prospective applicants. Students were previously required to take three years of high school math through Algebra 2 or Mathematics II; they now have the option to satisfy their third-year math requirement with courses in data science, statistics, computer science, finite math or probability.
Some high schools around the country are shifting their curriculum requirements and allowing students to substitute conventional math classes with applied math classes in response to the growing job opportunities in the technology industry. For example, during the 2022-2023 school year, the Ohio Department of Education implemented the “Strengthening Ohio High School Mathematics Pathways Initiative.” The initiative allowed students to fulfill an Algebra 2 graduation requirement with new, “equivalent” courses, such as Data Science Foundations, Statistics and Probability and Discrete Mathematics/Computer Science.
Educators have expressed mixed opinions in response to the introduction of applied math courses into high school math curricula.
In an email to The Daily, Boaler wrote that broadening high school math options “will bring more students into STEM and expand their post-education career options.”
She added that students exposed to applied math topics like data science and statistics will be well-equipped to understand our increasingly data-driven world and to pursue meaningful careers in STEM. According to her, the trend “is part of wider, very important work nationwide to broaden high-level mathematics options available to high school students, teaching them the data literacy that they need to navigate the modern world.”
Boaler was the chief author of the 2021 California Math Framework (CMF), which aimed to improve educational equity by reshaping the state’s math curriculum. The CMF recommends that all students take Algebra I in ninth grade and urges schools to remove accelerated middle school math tracks from California public schools.
Conrad is apprehensive of the high school math curriculum changes; he said he thinks replacing traditional math courses with alternative math subjects hinders students’ ability to succeed in future quantitative studies.
“Data science opens up enormous opportunities for giving very compelling motivation for the conventional curriculum,” Conrad said. “But, broadly speaking, the conventional high school math content is the only route that keeps all the options open.”
Conrad added that high schools should work to incorporate applied math education into the conventional framework. “Ideally you learn the math alongside some awareness of why it is useful,” he said, adding that instead of offering data science classes with very little math content, schools can provide motivation for conventional classes by connecting fundamental skills to real-life applications.
“It is very hard to perceive early on what consequences are going to play out down the road if you do not learn certain things,” Conrad said. “Not counting a class as a math class is not devaluing that topic, it is just saying it’s not a math class.”